Archived General DB Blogs
Visiting the Giro d’Italia 2009
Posted: May 27 2009
Living in the south of France for a while has its benefits. One of them is the proximity to many other countries to easily visit. Another is the immersion in an incredibly active cycling culture, including easy access to a wide range of professional level events and races. We recently put these two benefits together and made the 5 hour drive to the Ligurian coast of Italy to see a stage of the 2009 Giro d’Italia.
The annual May spectacle of the Giro d’Italia is often outshined in North America by its July neighbour le Tour de France. The Tour and its “maillot jaune” (yellow jersey) remains the most coveted prize in cycling, but the Giro and its “maglia rosa” (pink jersey) has nearly as long, and equally as storied a history, plus has an energy and character that is more than unique – it is truly special. We wanted to experience this excitement and witness the famed “tifosi” (Italian cycling fans) in action. The kids had a 4 day school holiday weekend in the second half of May – we checked against the Giro schedule and found that the much anticipated time trial stage ending in Riomaggiore on the Mediterranean coast (about 475km from our current base in France) occurred during this break. Coincidentally, that area of Italy (known as the Cinque Terre) was on our “hope to visit list” – so a plan was immediately born!
2009 marks the “centoanni” (100th anniversary) of the Giro and the organizers put together an exciting and historic set of stages, many of which have never been seen in any Giro and are unique in their variability. The Tour, for all its grandeur, is somehow more formulaic and rarely sees such variety of stages. Many of the grand cities of Italy are visited, starting with a team time trial around Venice, a multi-lap criterium style stage around Milan, and ending with an individual time trial in Rome. In between there’s an eclectic mix of both brutally long and remarkably short stages, in the Alps, Dolomites and Apennines, even a stage ending with a full ascent of the famous Mt Vesuvius, never before featured in a Giro.
And of course, our chosen stage to see – the individual time trial, held May 20th in the Cinque Terre. This stage was also unique as it is on roads not often visited by the Giro and was remarkably long and undulating for a time trial. The distance was 61km, with some 1100m of climbing. The ascents were long and often steep, with tortuously twisty descents on narrow but scenic coastal roads in this rugged area. After reconnaissance of the course, most riders in fact chose not to use their specific time-trial bikes, as the aerodynamic advantage was outweighed by the climbing and the bike handling required.
Some riders described the course as “more like a long breakaway in the mountains” than a time trial. Normally ITT’s at pro tours are ridden over shorter and flatter distances and won in times under and hour and at average speeds often over 50km/h. This stage was eventually won by race leader (at time of writing) Denis Menchov in a time of over 1 hour and 34 minutes, at an average speed of 38.5 km/h. He pulled off a “double” – snatching the stage win and the maglia rosa in the same stage. Italian Danilo DiLuca (pictured in pink) worked hard to honour the jersey but came up short.
Riding a bit of the Giro
Of course, I wasn’t planning to just watch the stage. I had to ride some of it. After our visit to the Paris-Nice race earlier in the year I guessed the course might be generally available to ride before the race started and so brought my bike along. Here’s a summary of some of that experience:
- The day dawns sunny and promises to be hot. I can see and hear the finish line being set up on the road high above our flat in Riomaggiore. I don the blue and white DB colours, my trusty Rocky road bike and head out.
- My plan is to ride out on the course from the finish to about the halfway point and then turn around and “time trial” it back to see how it feels. My turnaround will be at the town of Levanto, about 30 km away and at the base of the larger of the two climbs on the course.
- Unsure of what state the course will be in, I grind up the 300 vertical metres from our flat at the seaside to the finish line. I am blocked immediately by a carabinieri (police) who (I think) is saying that there is no way I can get through to ride the course. Frustrated, I am soon joined by a small group of other cyclists with similar plans to mine, one of whom is Belgian but fortunately speaks Italian and is also apparently rather persuasive. Soon enough we are navigating a beehive of setup activity at the finish line – once through that are spinning along the fully closed road that is the Giro TT route!
- I immediately start climbing (the final descent of the course) and note how steep and twisty this descent will be. The road is perched on steep hillsides about 250-500 m above the sea with tight hairpins and precipitous drops behind marginal barriers. A lovely road ride, but scary to imagine at speed.
- Several of the tighter, more exposed corners are set up with 15 foot high nylon catch nets like are seen on the edges of DH ski courses. Yikes!
- I pass through numerous small villages. All are very festive and very, very PINK. Pink is the colour of the leader’s jersey and the colour of the Giro. It is everywhere. Painted on the road. Huge banners and signs and tents in pink. T-shirts, hats, shorts, balloons – you name it, pink is the colour and clearly more favoured by men than women. Each village has set up a big party/viewing area that generally consists of tents with bars in them and lots of banners welcoming the Giro. It is around 10 am and most are filling rapidly and already very festive.
- The road is closed to public traffic but there is a steady stream of cyclists like myself going both ways, lots of official cars and trucks bustling back and forth. Occasionally a team car goes by with a rider in front of or inside it, scoping the course. Relatively peaceful and a fun ride but one had to keep eyes open!
- Now up on the high plateau above the sea, I notice two riders approaching along the course. The first is dressed in bright yellow Livestrong kit and the second, smaller rider is in Astana gear. They are followed by a brightly painted Volvo wagon in Astana colours. Hey, that’s Lance and Levi! Apparently out reviewing the sketchy fast descent part of the course (it is still more than 5 hours until they are due to start). I resist the urge to turn around and give chase…
- For a while the course is very quiet, no one around. I wonder where all the famous Italian fans are. Then I reach the top of the big climb, and I find them… I now have to pick my way carefully downhill through throngs of people for nearly all of the 8km descent of what will be the big and decisive climb of the TT. Campers, tents, cars everywhere, bicycles by the hundreds. Thousands of people, all ages, most in pink. Incredible. Large encampments, covered with big event tents, and huge banners proclaiming “Basso Fan Club” or “Cunego Cunego Cunego” populated by what looks like the entire contents of those riders’ home villages. Much road painting is completed and more still underway. I weave through the freshly painted homages to their heros . Much of the pavement on the course is fresh, providing a lovely clean chalkboard-like canvas for their work. The smoke of dozens of BBQ grills makes me hungry, the sweeter smell of many more dozens of open vino bottles makes me vigilant on my descent! Wow, this is already a bit overwhelming, and the first racer won’t be at this point for nearly 3 more hours, with the last ones still about 6 hours away!
- I continue to the bottom and into the town of Levanto to turn around and begin my assault on something a bit less than half of the course. It is very hot already and only 11 am. After seeing how busy the closed course is, I decide that a full-on (for me) time trial effort is not a great idea. Nonetheless I figure I will push a solid effort to see how this course feels to an avid amateur.
- I hit the climb and just try to soak up the atmosphere while conjuring up my mental images of being a pro rider in a TT. There are plenty of other amateurs like me doing the same thing, all in their own little dream worlds. It was a blast! The still-growing crowds were happy to cheer any riders at this point. The road was clearing up of official car traffic and some sections I was able to fly through at a grin-inducing pace. The climb was tough but steady, the false flats along the top section were punishing, and the descents were fun unless I tried to go really fast and then they were hair raisingly scary! End result? Let’s just say that my average speed was quite a bit lower than the winner’s. Sure I’m no pro rider, but I also rode only half of the course. And I had not ridden thousands of km over the past 2 weeks. Good perspective, although I didn’t really need to do the ride to know I am not pro peloton material.
- My writing skills are insufficient to describe the pure enjoyment I felt for that 50 or so minutes – riding my bike, on a beautiful day, on incredible roads with jaw-dropping scenery, along a closed course, lined with the sights, sounds and smells of the Giro, only an hour or so before the caravan and the riders would be flying through. I will never forget it.
After my course tour, my family and I loaded up a knapsack with refreshments and hiked up to the race course, explored for a good location, and eventually spent the sunny hot afternoon watching rider after rider crank by under the ‘flamme rouge’ (the 1km to go banner) which was placed on a nasty little uphill and provided a good feel for the effort and speeds.
Again, like many sporting events, being there is so much different than on TV. On one hand, you have no idea what is actually going on! No time splits or updates, it is all guessing. It was hours before I knew who had won. But on the other hand, you are there. You hear the crowd around you and listen to the banter about the race. You see the numerous camera and lead motos buzzing by, the endless team, event and official cars, usually 2-3 per rider. The TV helicopters hammer by occasionally, or hover overhead, usually a good sign of a big name coming. You feel the heat off the pavement, see the effort of the riders, hear the occasional missed shift as they desperately seek more power on the last big effort. I watched another stage of the Giro on TV a few days later and it was now different. Both somehow less exotic but even more appealing – I felt like I was there again.
If you love riding, and are lucky enough to have the chance, try to see a stage or more of one of the big tours. It is worth it. The Tour is special (stay tuned in July for a report from the Tourmalet), but I have also fallen in love with the Giro. May won’t be the same after this and I know I’ll be back.
You can read lots more about the 2009 Giro on sites like these:
A copy of this story is also posted here on my Velos Differents blog.
Read more of our riding-related adventures in Europe and ask questions or add comments!
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